Despite the exciting potentials about new technologies for development and, particularly, the latest hype on mobile phones, it is necessary not to loose out sight of the incredible challenges towards Internet access or extended mobile usage. I have collected over the past months some interesting facts and figures from a variety of people, which show that ICT is still an incredibly scarce resource and can also have contrary effects leading to more poverty.

Reality Check - Computers and Rural Development

Back at the Web4dev conference in February, Grant Cambridge made a very interesting presentation called: Access to Information. Challenges and Obstacles - a Rural African Perspective. Cambridge describes in his presentation the situation in rural South Africa, where:

  • There is virtually no access to computers

  • There is limited access to knowledge and information

  • A child’s potential to learn is directly proportional to the knowledge of the teacher

  • Many people have never even typed their names on a keyboard

  • Where the edge of your world is as far as you can walk in a day

He describes that even the much better accessible mobile phone involves multiple challenges, such as “People walking up to 3 miles several times per week to recharge battery.” Cambridge works on a robust single or multi-terminal system for rural areas, and concludes in his presentation that access does not imply inclusion.  Check also the others presentations from the web4dev conference.

In an article for APC, which asks, “Is there still a need for telecentres now that there are mobile phones?” Ian Howard argues by highlighting the huge challenges for access in rural areas and the problems leaving it all up to mobile providers.

“The development of autonomous infrastructure is still required in order to meet the needs of rural communities. These new mobile-phone infrastructures are largely poised as oligopolies, protected from the threat of new entrants by high licensing fees and reserved frequency allotments.”

Ednah Karamagi underlines in her article Web 2.0 in rural areas – myth or practical? That “connectivity in many of the districts is very limited or even non-existent,” and continues, “In fact, most people in these areas [rural areas] don’t even know how to use it [Internet], let alone how it can be applied to improve their livelihoods. Computers are still perceived as white elephants – they are for the literate.”

But the importance and possibilities of ICT has drastically changed with mobile phones as Ben White shows in his research in Uganda, where, for example, a student spends around 40% of his income on mobile phone credit.

Steve Song also makes an observation about the usage of mobile phones in Kenya, from the latest findings of the ResearchICTAfrica initiative:

Recent research from ResearchICTAfrica reveals that Kenyans are spending incredible amounts on mobile communication as a proportion of income. Here’s how it breaks down. The average Kenyan spends over 50% of their disposable income on mobile communication. For the bottom 75% of the population, that figure goes up to 63.6%. In terms of total individual income, the average Kenyan spends 16.7% of their income on mobile communication. That figure rises to 26.6% when looking at the bottom 75% of the population. These figures are astounding. It highlights the fact that Africans are paying for mobile communication in spite of how expensive it is, not because of how affordable it is.

Song concluded that it “emphasises how critical access to mobile communication is for people,” but Kathleen Diga shows in her study about Mobile Cell Phones and Poverty Reduction that mobile phone usages can lead also to more poverty and create new divides:

According to the findings, the challenges which rural households face include making sacrifices such as travel expenses and store-bought food budgets in order to pay the costs of mobile phone services.  Findings also show that gender inequality through exacerbated asset control and mobile phone inexperience drive further digital divide in Katote, Uganda.

Crystal Watley, from Voices of Africa, highlighted some more challenges around women and mobile usage on the mobile active mailing list:

Here in Kenya, mobile phones have added great value to the lives of the citizens from the deep villages to the urban centers. But there are a few negative consequences in family relationships. 1) Cell phones make it easier to cheat on your spouse 2) Cell phones GIVE away the secrets of the spouses that were already cheating thus causing household tension and domestic violence. 3) African men tend to be very jealous and often use mobile phones as a way to control their women monitoring every message and call. 4) Violence and jealousy is also caused between those who own phones and those who do not. Or between those with different model phones. Theft is rampant. 5) Kenyans do not understand calling courtesy and can sometimes call at all sorts of hours.

Unfortunately, there are only few studies on the concrete benefit of ICTs and, for example, in the case of mobile phones, the fishery example is often recited, where one can read many pros and cons. However, the mobile phone has an impact, as Watley points out, on the positive and negative.  Another interesting attempt to portray the changes of mobile phones in daily life was done by a new documentary from my friends at ICT4D.at.